Sunday, February 1, 2015


Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable for the next few minutes as we discuss a brief history of the American science fiction cinema of the 1970s.

Two landmark sf films were released in 1968, films that at once both defined and changed the genre forever. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Franklin J. Schaffner's PLANET OF THE APES, were both groundbreaking, visionary films that provided much food for thought and pointed the way towards intelligent, mature science fictions films. It would be almost a decade later that another science fiction film would have such a profound impact on the cinema and pop culture in general. That was, of course George Lucas's STAR WARS in 1977. But between 1968 and 1977, American science fiction films struggled to find that mixture of art and commerce, of both critical and box office success that these three films achieved.

Oh, sure, PLANET OF THE APES spawned four sequels in the early '70s but each entry in the POTA series was less than the one before due to diminishing budgets and mediocre screenplays. Consider this short list of films from the era: COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970), THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), SILENT RUNNING (1972), WESTWORLD (1973),  SOYLENT GREEN (1973), ZARDOZ (1974), PHASE IV (1974), CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974), DARK STAR (1974), A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975), and LOGAN'S RUN (1976). Some of these films have a great deal of merit, some do not. But none of them were the game changers that 2001, PLANET OF THE APES and STAR WARS were.

But if you were a science fiction film fan in the 1970s like me (and raise your hand if you were), you dutifully went to your local theater and paid your good money to see these films and others not listed here. I supported these films not because they were great (although some were very good) but for the simple reason that it's all we had. If you liked science fiction movies, you saw science fiction movies. Period. We had no idea that something like STAR WARS, ALIEN or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND were coming in the years ahead or that the degree of technical proficiency on display in those films would ever be possible. Those films and the sequels and original films that followed in the 1980s were a revelatory experience, an entrance into a new age of cinematic gosh-wow sense of wonder.

Case in point, FUTUREWORLD, a 1976 sequel to 1973's WESTWORLD. WESTWORLD, written and directed by Michael Crichton, was the first variation of a theme that Crichton would later more fully develop in his novel JURASSIC PARK (1990), that of an engineered, high tech, state-of-the-art amusement park in which things go horribly wrong. In WESTWORLD, tourists Richard Benjamin and James Brolin visit the park where they are encouraged to enter various "worlds" populated by life-like robots where they can live out fantasy scenarios full of action, adventure and romance. They run afoul of a murderous robot gunfighter (Yul Brynner) in the western part of the park, a malfunction that leads to the destruction of the park. End of story.

Not quite. FUTUREWORLD (which I watched for the first time yesterday), produced in 1976 by low-budget genre auteur Samuel Z. Arkoff for American International Pictures, continues the story of Delos, the amusement park of tomorrow. Here two reporters, newspaper columnist Peter Fonda and television anchor Blythe Danner, visit the new and improved Delos to get the scoop on this new, better iteration of the robot populated fantasy "worlds". Of course, this being a '70s film, all is not what it seems as the powers behind the scenes of Delos plot to replace world leaders with perfect robot duplicates.

No credit is given to Crichton but the film makes no bones about being a sequel to WESTWORLD. Footage from the original film is used and Yul Brynner returns as the robot gunfighter. However, his on-screen time is minimal as he only appears in a semi-erotic dream sequence of Danner's. Brynner has no dialogue and looks like he filmed his scenes in a day. I hope he was well paid for his time.

FUTUREWORLD suffers from a slap-dash script, painfully bad dialogue and lots of filler material before getting to the meat of the story. There's a lot of expository padding here (although you've got to like a film that starts with an appearance by game show legend Allen (PASSWORD) Ludden) and Fonda and Danner do the best with what they're given but what they're given just isn't very good. Arthur Hill is good as the smooth, unctuous Dr. Duffy, the public face of Delos while Stuart Margolin (Angel on television's THE ROCKFORD FILES) provides some comic relief as a Delos worker. Continuity is non-existent as Danner's wardrobe goes from a jumper to a dress and back to a jumper all within the course of a few minutes of screen time.

FUTUREWORLD was filmed in the greater Houston area including Intercontinental Airport, Jones Hall and the Johnson Space Center. The film was the first major feature film to use 3D computer generated imagery in a brief scene. It's crude and primitive looking compared to what we're used to today but the footage is pretty impressive for 1976.

Peter Fonda, who never repeated the success of EASY RIDER (1969) in his career, was always in the shadow of his famous father, Henry. Danner fared somewhat better in her career, working steadily over the years in solid performances in films and television. She is of course the mother of Gwyneth Paltrow.

FUTUREWORLD screams the 1970s and as such, it's a mildly diverting time capsule of that lost era. But it's still a mediocre science fiction film.

1 comment:

  1. Raising my hand, Frank. Ironic that considering the success of the moon landings, this was all we had for cinematic SF. But I've great nostalgia for the era, especially Crichton's work and the Gene Roddenberry TV efforts post-Star Trek.